The Sports-Streaming Mess Is Just Starting

Streamers are increasingly investing in sports, and audiences are following them. But for soccer fans in the U.S., the irony is that watching this year’s World Cup is still confusing, frustrating, and expensive. Photo: Marvin Ibo Guengoer - GES Sportfoto/Getty Images
Julia Alexander
November 29, 2022

There are few more symbiotic relationships in the new world of entertainment than the one between streaming and soccer fans. American audiences who watch the sport are among the youngest in the country, with 50 percent under the age of 40, according to a Morning Consult survey, and the same demographic of cord-cutters and never-corders who subscribe to multiple streaming services. Premier League has helped Peacock grow its subscriber base, according to Antenna Research. UEFA is also a key driver for Paramount+, according to executives I speak with, which explains why the company spent $1.5 billion to secure matches through 2030. ESPN+ has seen success with various soccer licenses. It’s hardly a surprise that AppleTV+ just paid $2.5 billion for decade-long rights to MLS. 

We used to think that sports were the final vestige of cable. Now, we realize that they’re the next frontier of streaming. Paramount+ and Peacock rely heavily on Sunday NFL games for engagement and signups. Amazon has driven significant domestic signups through Thursday Night Football and the audience is up among 18-49 year-olds. The NHL, a peripatetic league during the past decade, moved to Hulu in hopes of finding a younger audience for hockey. NBA League Pass saw 30 percent growth in global subscribers during the past season, when prices were dropped to better compete with services like ESPN+. 

Subscriptions to some virtual TV options—especially YouTube TV and Hulu with Live TV, which both prominently feature live sports rights—have grown over the past few years. Hulu’s live offering grew 10 percent year over year through Disney’s fourth quarter, while YouTube TV has grown from 3 million to more than 5 million customers in two years even with price increases. In October, peak sports season, viewership for YouTube and Hulu increased, according to Nielsen’s The Gauge report. 

So, yes, streamers are increasingly investing in sports, and audiences are following them. But the experience, at least in these early innings of the transition, has not always been smooth. Take, for instance, soccer. While fans in the U.S. have more options than ever, the irony is that watching this year’s World Cup—the first since the “Streaming Wars” really came into maturity—is still confusing, frustrating, and expensive. In the U.S., the World Cup is airing on linear TV via Fox Sports, with Telemundo broadcasting in Spanish. Online, fans need to piece together their viewing schedule through a plethora of streaming services and multi-channel video programming distributors. The only true cord-cutting option that costs less than $40 a month is Peacock, where NBCUniversal is carrying the Telemundo stream, but even that comes with a catch: While the first 12 games are available to any Peacock subscriber, watching the final (and most exciting and consequential) matches will require an upgrade to Premium. How’s that for an upsell?

Sports leagues make their money by packaging up their games into discrete bundles and selling the rights to various broadcast partners. This presented only a slight hassle in the cable age, when an avid NBA fan had to remember which day they needed to flip to ESPN versus TNT or ABC. But things are more complicated in the streaming era, and the World Cup is only the most notorious recent example of a major event that’s left global viewers grappling with Google searches about how to watch. 

The Three Cs

I tell my clients that there are three C’s when it comes to streaming and sports: cost, convenience, and community. It’s a complicated problem to solve. 

Obviously, as is the case with mass products, price sensitivity matters. Peacock and Paramount+ have gained market share, in part, because they are cheap alternatives to broadcast and cable. They may not offer the wealth of Netflix, but they have just enough to validate the value perception. Amazon made its football broadcast “free” to existing customers. Meanwhile, the pricey YouTube TV, Sling, Fubo TV, and Hulu with Live TV are fantastic products, but more difficult purchases for younger or more budget-conscious households that have already signed up for three or four other streaming platforms. 

That said, if it’s a hassle to use the product, the value perception also decreases. The World Cup is a case in point: fans can either watch games live via Fubo TV (and Fubo TV Elite), YouTube TV, Sling TV (Blue), and Hulu with Live TV. Folks who don’t want to watch games live can catch replays on Tubi, Fox’s free, ad-supported streamer, in 4K. At least with cable, where most people only watch ten percent of the available channels, viewers can see them all via one interface. Fragmentation is an issue that will continue to grow as rights are divided amongst different companies with different streaming platforms, so a lower price has to make up for the increased hassle.

Then there’s the nature of community on streaming, which is changing too. Netflix changed the industry with the premonition that customers want to watch on their own terms and time tables. But sports consumption is live and communal. In the four years since the last World Cup, about 15 million households in the U.S. have cut the cord as streaming services have added more than 100 million subscribers collectively. Acceleration in the space is mostly hindered by an attachment to sports and, as streaming races to catch up with the audience demand for live television, events like the World Cup reiterate just how far streaming still has to go. 

The Next Wave: More Frustration

No one is more aware of the changing sports-streaming landscape than the sports leagues, themselves. Rights negotiations now include Amazon, Apple, and other players like DAZN. The NFL launched NFL+ to offer out-of-market games to subscribers, and even FIFA is trying to find a way to better connect with fans through FIFA+, which will stream all 64 World Cup matches for free in Brazil. The “landmark deal,” as described by the organization, will include each game alongside additional content created in partnership with iconic players, such as Ronaldo (Nazário, not Cristiano), and local production companies. The streaming offering for the World Cup, expected to be viewed by 5 billion people, according to FIFA’s president, isn’t available in other countries—but that’s the point of experimentation. 

Brazil is one of the largest soccer markets in the world. FIFA, like many sports leagues, is trying to create a stronger and more direct connection to fans. A direct relationship also allows the organization to better control customer data, which can entice fans to attend more matches, buy merchandise, and watch additional content. Crucially, it also allows for better control of advertising if more games are carried in-app. While FIFA won’t walk away from huge licensing revenue, finding ways to increase its footprint in the direct-to-consumer space is vital. 

The issue with leagues offering their own games is that while the product may be cheaper than cable or streaming, it doesn’t fix audience fragmentation. Streaming was an antidote to the expense and bloat of cable. What exists now is the opposite, especially for sports fans—streaming is expensive, fragmented, and confusing. Talk to anyone who’s paying handsomely to watch their team on League Pass and still dealing with local blackouts. It’s not a solution unless you’re willing to pay near cable-style fees. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean cord-cutting will stop; the industry’s best TV entertainment is designed for streaming platforms. You still need Netflix and Disney+, even if you’re using cable for sports, to keep up with the most zeitgeisty shows. It does mean, however, that sports consumers can expect more frustration as the leagues continue to experiment. The biggest professional leagues, after all, are incentivized to increase their own revenues, which means selling their rights to as many suitors as possible. And as more streamers bid on games, that will mean that consumers have to remember which games are on which service on which night. 

By the time the next World Cup airs, the television landscape will look even more different. There are estimates that pay TV could fall to roughly 55 million U.S. households by the end of 2026, dropping from estimates of 68.5 million households in 2022. Streaming viewership will increase tenfold, and sports will be spread out across various platforms. 

So how will we be watching the next World Cup, to which Fox still has the rights, and, more importantly, beyond 2026? Expect more live simulcasting between broadcasters and their associated streaming platforms—ESPN and ESPN+, Fox Sports 1 and Tubi, NBC and Peacock—as advertising within FAST and AVOD continues to grow and adoption increases. Expect more e-commerce integration, especially if Disney or Amazon secure the rights, and expect more sports betting incorporated into platforms. That last change may ultimately be the most transformational: Sports betting doubled in 2021 and continued to increase in 2022. Giving viewers more of a reason to tune in live by allowing them to wager on games, and having everything in one platform, drives engagement, necessity, and community. 

Right now, watching the World Cup can be frustrating without cable—or, say, if you’re a Peacock subscriber but want to watch live games in English. By the time the next couple of World Cups roll around, expect way more interactivity and an actual streaming-first mentality.